A special treat for you all this week, blogfans, as the whisky writer, nocturnal acoustic guitarist, Speyburn aficionado, trout mask replicant and founder of WhiskySponge, Angus MacRaild, takes time out from his hectic salmon-fetishisation schedule for a rare and very welcome diversion into seriousness, with a thoughtful reflection on the role of the writer in the whisky industry…*

Take it away, Angus! 

During the memorial service for Peter Preston, the late former editor of the Guardian newspaper, Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail and a man those of us who stalk the central and leftward political grounds love to loathe, gave the following assessment of his departed fellow journalist:

“Liz has described Peter the private, shy, socially gauche individual who eschewed the swanky parties and glitzy first nights at which too many of his trade loved to be seen hobnobbing with the powerful and the celebrated. I see a different man. I see a slightly lonely figure – one who was all too acutely aware that an editor, who operates without fear or favour, can’t really have friends. And then again, good editors need to be outsiders because, let’s be honest, most people only befriend journalists to get something into a paper or – more pertinently – keep it out.”

There is something in that, isn’t there? Something that strikes at the heart of what lends authority, truth and value to the written word. Who has written this? Why have they written it? Who has it been written for? Who has paid for it to be written? Or, as is so often the case, who has paid for its facilitation? Who has cause for it to be written, who benefits?

There is a reason that oft-coined phrase in journalism (and, perhaps even more notably, in law enforcement), ‘follow the money’, strikes so keenly – and often uncomfortably – at the heart of so many aspects of our governance, social institutions and culture.

The romance of the word ‘writer’ is deceptive. The word ‘journalist’ conjures in the mind’s eye sweat, cigarette smoke, stress and dogged, midnight oil-burning toil. It brings to mind the hack with their Hollywood, celluloid-veneered dishevelment. In many ways it is not without its own form of romance.

The word ‘writer’, meanwhile, brings to mind wit, the erudite debonaire, the typewriter, the novelist, the craftsperson. A form which can cross into the sphere of art. Crucially, it offers a far broader catchment of definition than the narrower scope of ‘journalist’.

The most basic function of journalism is the pursuit of truth. Introduce money in the right places, however, and the ‘journalist’ becomes the ‘writer’. Their whole process becomes transactional.

Nowhere is this more true than in the media of cultural artefacts and commercial product. Cars; films; television; watches; guns; musical instruments; restaurants; sports equipment; fashion. Drinks. Once a media outlet’s existence is dependent upon advertising revenues from the very industry it seeks to illuminate then the ‘truth’ of its output inevitably becomes opaque and questionable.

The transaction between producer and media carries unspoken agreements: advertising, access or experience (or more commonly a mix of all three) in exchange for a degree of communicated kindness. A degree of criticism is often tolerated to lend a calculated authenticity to the work.

In the world of whisky writing today almost all of us call ourselves ‘writers’ first and foremost. There are some who often vocally proclaim that they are primarily journalists – Jim Murray and Dominic Roskrow in particular both emphasise their training as journalists and newspaper time served. However, their function today is very much as ‘writers’ like the rest of us. This is not to single them out for criticism but rather to identify the broader truth about the nature of the work we all participate in and earn our living from.

I can hear the digital pencils sharpening already. I myself am self-employed and earn a large part of my living writing about whisky. I can see how this might be seen as a hypocritical, bridge-immolating tirade. In writing this article, however, I have no delusions of self-importance, nor do I seek to overtly criticise the world of whisky writing or disassociate myself from it. Rather, I’m interested in a little collective reflection.

What are the consequences of this transactional whisky media? It has created a kind of cultural architecture. A spectrum along which we all function and exist. We contribute to its upkeep at differing ends – rarely are any of us static along its breadth.

The very worst, most transactional, most functionless examples, are what you might commonly call ‘content’, or sometimes ‘copy’. Directly regurgitated marketing, uncriticised by the interest or opinions of its facilitator and existing in service of the promoters of the product, event or institution in question. A tactic to incept in the minds of consumers, via the intermediary filter of ‘the writer’, the ideal perceptions they’d like people to have about their brand/product etc.

I’ve written my share of meaningless content and I loathe it. I adore writing in and of itself but these kinds of pieces often sap your will to type. And yet, they are ubiquitous and pay the bills.

People genuinely interested in writing tolerate such work for the chance to dabble further along the writing spectrum. To write pieces which contend with deeper, more interesting subjects. To engage with the transaction on a more even footing and attempt to produce a piece of writing that wrestles its way – via opinion and fact – to some kind of recognisable truth.

That truth will legitimately engage the reader without undue subservience to subject, experience or ‘the wage’. This is the kind of work which demonstrates genuine balance but it is rarer than we might all like – or even admit to. It is, however, the sort of piece which just about keeps professional whisky writing viable (which of course I would say).

That word, ‘professional’, also leads us to another part of the spectrum: the blogger. Blogging of almost any kind emerged initially as a kind of anti-transactional reaction to the established tradition of ‘company gives shiny free shit and fun times to writer/magazine; writer/magazine pens gushing ass-kissery about company’.

This is why, especially with whisky, you will almost always find the most searing and negative writing confined to blogs. Blogs can be shot through with a bitterness born of a perception of commercial destruction being wrought on a drink the blogger adores. They are theoretically the rawest written expression of whisky truth, except that it is often a truth as perceived through an embittered, occasionally inexperienced eye.

Blogs contain everything from the deepest and most concise expressions of loathing and love, to the more modern – and oft-critiqued – ‘professional blog’. That is to say, the blogger trying to scrounge free samples or angling for a job in the industry. We self-declared professionals love to hate these folks – to the point that we often over-exaggerate their numbers. Industry professionals usually express vocal disdain for them as well.

Writers of this type can range on our somewhat haphazardly defined whisky writing spectrum anywhere from harmless and well-intentioned to the worst kind of self-interested, craven, wilfully ill-informed, content-spewing drivel. Blogs exist largely at the two furthest extremes of our spectrum: the kind of naff shit that gives whisky writing a bad rep and the most intense articulations of the feelings that whisky ignites in us.

And here lies the problematic crux of the matter: love. The one thing that unites people who write about whisky, even those of us who don’t like or respect each other, or who aren’t necessarily all that good at writing, is a love of whisky. We might articulate or feel it differently. It may even manifest itself in wildly varying ways due to our arrival at it from vastly different journeys and perspectives. But love, nonetheless.

Complications arise because what we love is a product, and the access to it at a contemporary level is largely controlled by what are essentially varyingly sized corporations whose natural, driving instinct is profit and growth. It is hard to not be seduced by a well-executed distillery visit. I could happily – and publicly – wax lyrical all day long about a Diageo organised visit to Clynelish (I’ve been on several and loved them). But then there must be a conscious effort on behalf of the writer to set that experience aside when critiquing Diageo’s almost religious pursuit of efficiency and yield.

The reality is that these companies are big enough for their good and bad aspects to co-exist. The problem we have as writers is that as we increasingly spend our professional time in their proximity, their influence over how, what and why we write, whether explicit, implicit, directly or indirectly financial, becomes increasingly complex to manage and navigate. To do it properly and with integrity requires honesty with yourself over your motivations, a degree of willpower and a commitment to upholding a rather purist definition of ‘truth’.

I don’t count myself as a constant possessor of these virtues. One of the reasons I don’t write so much on Whiskysponge anymore is because as I expand my work professionally in the whisky world, so satire of the Sponge variety becomes more problematic – more political. The self-interest of the ‘career’ is a powerful motivator and while a toning down of criticism is not the same as an absence of truth, it is part of an internal balancing act we all inevitably play in a transactional media.

There is a good reason why Whiskyfun – as created by Serge Valentin – is so powerful. It is long-established, focused on meaningful content, independent of advertising and external influence and consistent in voice. Mr Valentin will dislike me saying all these things but it is perhaps unique in the world of whisky writing in the way it manages to find balance, independence and relevance on this hypothetical writing spectrum. It also functions as a neat illustration of a core contemporary issue around the ‘whisky writer’ which is when companies do not consider them a writer but rather that oh-so-Instagrammy entity – an ‘influencer’. A blank canvas of opinion for hire.

When Macallan opened its new distillery the list of people it didn’t invite was more interesting than the people it did invite. Serge Valentin didn’t get an invite. Tellingly suggesting that Edrington considered the risk of critique – some might say truth – from a genuine influencer more concerning than the prospect of praise. They want influencers present, but they want their influencers. Dependable, proven and ‘mouldable’ voices that offer a secure transaction.

New Macallan – Image by Mark Power

Edrington’s distillery launch was perhaps the purest expression of contemporary ‘transactionism’ in whisky media. And I say that as someone who still thinks it’s all very grand and impressive and, yes, even ‘game changing’. I don’t think this transactionism automatically de-legitimises the praise that arose in the aftermath of the launch. Rather, it highlights the absence of equally legitimate arguments about New Macallan representing the epitome of contemporary obsession with brand and aesthetic over distillate and product. Transactional media is as much about carefully-averted criticism as subliminally-purchased praise.

We live in an era where there is increasing dislocation and disagreement between companies and consumers. Scotch Whisky, as an industry, a product and a cultural artefact is expanding and evolving at a remarkable rate. You need only look to the sheer volume of new distilleries opening. Or the vast investments in both tourism and production aspects being upgraded or created from scratch.

Look at the artist label 1926 Macallans selling at auction for close to £1 million apiece; a result that outstrips even the rarest fine wines, something which would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Arguably even more telling are the recent results for the Samaroli Bowmore Bouquet and Laphroaig 1967 at Whisky Auctioneer: £51,611 and £61,000 respectively. All these changes and occurrences are weighted with meaning.

A linear ascendance of writing – and journalism – that illuminates, articulates, disrupts, critiques and – when justified – praises this expanding world is essential if its truths, negativities and better angels are to be properly identified and kept apace with.

A polarised world of ranting whisky bloggers and disinterested, copy-dispensing opinions for hire helps no one. It frustrates both the official curators and producers of whisky and its audience in equal measure. It inflames ill-feeling and stokes unnecessary, or unjustified, grievance at the expense and dampening of legitimate critique.

On this broad spectrum of whisky writing there is a balanced pathway through the transactional nature of our media. The better we get at treading it as writers, the better our writing will be. This will be more recognisable to readers and will contribute, consequently, to a more constructive dialogue between those who make whisky and those who consume it. At its best, this is a process that can and should have a role to play in the betterment of the products themselves.  

* [TL;DR – We’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars – Ed.]